|“||The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.||”|
Mass collaboration is the coordinated effort to complete a project that harnesses the combined knowledge, skills, or finances of a large group of people. Such an endeavor yields a reservoir of raw knowledge that grows as each individual adds their own unique experiences to the effort. A project of this magnitude would prove impossible for an individual or small team. Throughout history, mass collaboration has led to the success of large scale projects. More recently, the Internet has provided new avenues through which organizers can coordinate mass collaborative efforts, potentially reducing the barrier to entry to start a major project.
Components of Mass Collaboration
Collective Brain Power
Mass Collaboration uses the combined knowledge, skills, and resources of a large group of people to create a powerful hub of information. To accomplish the project goal, coordinators dip into this hub and allow individual efforts to compliment each other and drive the project to success. An individual effort may be sufficient for accomplishing one component of the project goal, but together with the efforts of others the entire project can be completed. According to Metcalfe's Law, the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users in the system. Therefore, as more people join a collaborative effort, the total power of the system grows exponentially. This phenomenon has been validated in endeavors like the US Intelligence's Aggregative Contingent Estimation project, which uses pooled civilian surveying to accurately forecast pertinent future events. See Prediction Markets for more.
Distribution of Burden
Mass Collaboration distributes risk or cost across multiple entities, reducing the risk any individual entity faces. This not only reduces the barrier to entry for a collaborative project, but encourages individuals to join collaborative efforts that without collaboration would prove daunting.
As an example of the advancements made possible by mass resource distribution, the Human Genome Project dispersed the research-intensive demands of mapping the entire human genetic blueprint. Beginning in 1900, an open-source database was created to unify the sequencing work of scientists worldwide. In addition to the magnitude collective time and personnel dedicated to this project, it was able to amass $3 billion in public funding. It took nearly ten years to characterize the entire genome; the task would have been unfeasible for any one research institution to take on alone.
Kickstarter, a crowd funding website, is an example of how distribution of individual risk can promote bold innovations. On this web community, people can publicize creative projects ideas for website viewers to invest in, thus obtaining accumulated start-up funds. While no single investor must commit to a jeopardizing gamble, the collective results are highly substantial and directed to much less conservative ventures. In the year 2011, Kickstarter had 11,836 successful projects, $99,344,381 pledged, and a project success rate of 46%. By 2012, Kickstarter the array of endeavors funded had diversified from video games to food, and individual projects could exceed $1 million of pledges in just one day.
Empowerment of the Individual
Mass collaboration, by definition, channels the efforts of many into a single cause. Individuals are not placed in an overarching hierarchy or assigned tasks by a manager, which could lead participants to feel "lost in the crowd," lose motivation, and stop contributing to the project.
Mass collaborative efforts avoid this issue, however, by empowering participants. They bolster self-perceptions of competence and influence, allowing individuals to build a legacy for themselves and empower others. Those who participate also develop critical awareness of resources needed to achieve a goal, an understanding of how to obtain those resources, and skills for managing obtained resources. The project provides an immediate outlet for individuals to practice these skills, preparing participants for decision-making and leadership. Mass collaboration can also empower by bridging social gaps - people of different cultures, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds, skill levels, etc. unite to address the mutually valued cause.
The phenomena of mass collaboration will only transpire when people have the means to connect to each other. Thus, the most influential force in amplifying mass collaboration is an instrument of communication; the larger the scale, the more effective. Historical advances in communication technology, such as the printing press, telegraph, radio, and television, acted as mediums to facilitate detailed collaboration among larger groups of people. However, restrictions as to who has access to reference, input or augment information defined these devices' limitations. This is why instances such as Martin Luther's use of the printing press in the Protestant Revolution are significant examples of mass distribution of information, but do not demonstrate full collaboration.
Arguably the most influential technologies to the recent explosion in mass collaboration entities are the Internet and mobile phones. A diversity of worldwide users can transmit text, sound, pictures, and video in dynamic ways to any viewer with a connection, much faster and more cheaply than ever before. The main traits which allow these technologies to catalyze mass collaboration are accessibility and adaptability. Accessibility of phones and internet lowers the cost and barrier to entry, expanding the scope of users and creating an easy to use system. Adaptability allows for continuous development over time, allowing users to critique their peers for accountability and amend information to keep it relevant.
Mass collaboration movements accumulate self-sustaining momentum as they grow, due to the compounding value of participation. As more individuals take part in a collaborative effort, the basis and quality of information or resources will expand rapidly. As in cases of Wikipedia and Linux, the fact that the system is being consistently used and improved encourages even more people to join. Furthermore, higher levels of of interaction produce a sense of social connectivity, belonging and community. These aspects of satisfaction help collaboration projects reach a "tipping point" where the sheer number of people involved will draw even more support and keep the project alive.
Examples of Mass Collaboration
Mass collaboration is common in nature, where animals work together to keep their colony or pack alive.
Honey bees follow a hive mentality, meaning individual bees act as pawns in the collective effort to sustain the hive. To counter weather and threats from other creatures, bees collaborate to form a "superorganism." For instance, during the Winter, an individual bee would die quickly. However, by forming a cluster and vibrating their muscles together, bees can maintain a temperature of 90-95 degrees in the Winter and thus survive frigid temperatures. Honey bees can kill predators such as hornets in a similar fashion. Their stingers cannot penetrate the thick exoskeleton of a hornet, so they surround the predator and heat themselves up. The hornet is unable to survive at as high temperatures as the honey bee and thus dies before it can escape.
Much like bees, fire ants follow a "hive mentality" and act for the benefit of the colony. In order to survive on water, fire ants connect to each other using their claws, jaws, and legs. Their individual cuticles repel water so much so that combined, they can remain afloat on a river. The connections amongst the ants allows the raft to trap air and allow submerged ants to breathe. This practice is especially useful in the event of flooding. By collaborating, the ants protect their most precious cargo: the queen, pupae, and eggs, and increase the chances of the colony's survival. Individually, these ants likely would not survive water submersion, as they are not inherently "waterproof." Together, however, they create enough surface tension for the pack to survive the destruction of their colony.
Standby Task Force
The Standby Task Force (SBTF) is a part of the disaster relief movement supporting Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs). VTCs are global networks composed of technical professionals and volunteers with expertise in social media, geographic information systems (GIS), database management, and/or online campaigns. These communities are quickly redefining disaster preparedness, response, and relief, with distributed internal structures that support open source software development and prevent against slow-moving bureaucracy.
SBTF provides “a trained and professionalized volunteer force [that could be] on standby and activated within hours” . In order to fulfill their goal of providing humanitarian organizations with support for crowdsourcing, mapping, data scrambling and technology testing , the group’s core team trains SBTF volunteers and maintains a continuous dialogue with other tech and crisis mapping groups . The SBTF core management aims to become superfluous in order to create "a space of empowerment where people learn how to work together and can do it independent of the core team” . The team has made significant progress towards this end, as evidenced by the creation of the Sudan and Mumbai crisis maps by volunteers’ of their own volition .
The Arab Spring is a series of revolutions, demonstrations and protests in the Arab world beginning in late 2010. The protestors have used civil resistance to great effect in campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches, and rallies. Social media has been used to organize these events, in spite of the state attempts at internet censorship and repression. The will of the people to massively collaborate is most apparent in one of the major slogans of the movement “the people want to bring down the regime”(translated)
Crowdsourcing, coined by Wired magazine writer Jeff Howe in 2006, is defined as opening tasks to the community that were originally meant for specific people.
In 2000, Goldcorp CEO and Chairman Rob McEwen announced the Goldcorp Challenge, a revolutionary new technique in data analysis. In the challenge, Goldcorp released all of the data on its underperforming Red Lake Mine and announced a cash prize for whoever could find the gold deposits. This was a huge risk but paid off, correctly identifying over 6 billion dollars of new gold deposits. This unorthodox technique was one of the first successful implementations of mass collaboration in business. Mass collaboration can engage the viewpoint of a wide variety of people onto a single task, creating a plethora of new solutions that a closed-cell group could not think of. In the case of Goldcorp, the company’s geologists could not discover the deposits because of their limited perspectives.
Several other companies have developed specifically for mass collaboration. InnoCentive anonymously posts company's problems online, opening up mass collaboration to businesses where secrecy is key. Giant Hydra uses a different approach, connecting several independent artists to collaboratively work on a project, creating a higher quality product. The pervasiveness of the technique can even be seen in the construction industry, historically known for its separation between general contractor and architect/engineer. The new technique of integrated project delivery stresses collaboration between all parties working on a project from sub-contractor to owner.
This technique has a wide variety of applications; one of the more interesting is news. In 2009 Ian Tomlinson died on his walk home during the G20 summit in London, England. In the initial police report, it was claimed that he had collapsed and died of natural causes. The police maintained this position after several eyewitness reported they had seen a scuffle between Tomlinson and the police. The actual events were revealed when a financial manager posted his video of the day's events. Shortly thereafter more videos and pictures were uploaded detailing the day. The police had struck an obedient Tomlinson causing him to fall forward and eventually die due to injuries sustained. The aftermath of Tomlinson’s death demonstrated crowdsourcing's potential. Without investigative reporting, the entire story was revealed within a few days. The resulting story was just as complete, incorporating many viewpoints to create a complete picture. Crowdsourcing has the potential to completely change the traditional investigative reporting system. With crowdsourcing, reporters evolve from following leads and connect details to serving more as editors, compiling the information that others have recorded. Many news stations have created specific tools to utilize crowdsourcing including CNN’s iReport, which was heavily used during disasters such as the Virginia Tech Massacre and I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapse. Several news websites, such as The Huffington Post, rely almost completely on crowdsourcing for its news.
Open source aims to provide source material for all productive material, and allows users to provide input and perfect the product. Instead of wishing there was a program or service that could perform specific tasks, programmers and developers collaborate to create the tool that fits their needs. Some of the most notable examples of open source projects are Linux, Eclipse, and Gimp.
Psychology behind Mass Collaboration
It’s easy to look at today’s mass collaboration successes – Wikipedia and Linux, for example – and accept that participation in these projects is a natural and rational process for humans. However, a little over a decade ago the principle of mass collaboration seemed economically counter intuitive. It was once widely accepted that some form of egoistic reward (most likely money) must be offered in exchange for productive labor. But when software programmers began returning from paid jobs in the evenings and freely contributed their expert knowledge to make Linux, now the most widely used operating system, this train of thought desperately needed revision.
With mass collaboration, the egoistic reward is largely replaced by an altruistic reward. That is, instead of receiving a direct reimbursement, the participant receives pleasure from contributing to the community. Or, often times, a median between egoistic and altruistic rewards arises in the form of popular acknowledgement, where a participant is visibly recognized for their selfless efforts. Both of these systems remove the necessity of direct reimbursement and make it possible for so-called rational actors to spend time working on projects that don’t directly repay them for their efforts. In this manner, unpaid editors rove through Wikipedia for mistakes and programmers diligently build modules into Linux for the satisfaction of and possible recognition for creating a common good.
If a mass collaborative project succeeds, the masses share the rewards and recognition. As a result, the individual sense of responsibility for success of a project decreases as more and more people add to the collaborative effort. The larger the group, the smaller the reward an individual will receive during and after the project. In addition, individuals assume others will pick up the slack if they do not fulfill their requirements. They hold the impression that even if they do not fulfill the responsibilities of their task, someone else will; why should they waste their own time if the job will get done regardless.
Distributed burden does not reduce total risk; it merely distributes it across multiple entities. If those entities do not fulfill their obligations, the project fails. For example, this Lentis chapter is a mass collaborative effort amongst teams from different years. An individual may think "Someone else will finish this section for me so I do not have to." Unfortunately, this puts the chapter and thus entire project at risk.
Groupthink occurs when the desire for harmony amongst the members of the masses trumps alternative or rational thought. This was especially evident in Germany during World War II, when the Nazis sought to extinguish inferior races. Some individual Germans may not have shared Hitler's radical views but did not seek to quell the Nazi wave because they were blinded by group fervor. As a mass collaborative effort, Nazis instilled fear into all their targets and created enough chaos to start a world war.
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